Feb 4, 2014; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Julius Randle (30) guard James Young (1) forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) and guard Aaron Harrison (2) celebrate against Mississippi Rebels guard Marshall Henderson (22) in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Mississippi 80-64. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats: Are They Legit Tournament Contenders?

Just when you think the Kentucky Wildcats have overcome their inexplicable missteps, they regress back to the inexperienced young squad that they ultimately are.  While head coach Jim Calipari may not enjoy the unwavering limelight his team garners regardless of whether they win or lose, it’s this type of national pressure that defines a teams resiliency in the face of lofty expectations that may or may not be applicable to a programs developing identity.  Although the Wildcats have asserted their physical dominance on several occasions, they have consistently surrendered big games to almost all of the ranked opponents they have encountered this season (four out of the Wildcats six losses have come at the hands of ranked opponents).  While it would premature to condemn the Wildcats as an overrated team that is able to stay afloat with safe conference victories, this program needs add a key intangible to their repertoire if they ever hope to go far in the NCAA tournament: resiliency

The key to the Wildcats sporadic success is their effective utilization of dynamic forwards combined with intermittent guard play that is proficient at driving the ball to the basket for any easy lay up or a hard foul which sends their clutch free throw shooters to the charity strike (the Wildcats starting guards shoot an average of 73.8% from the free throw line).  However, the problem with these particular guards is that they struggle to shoot consistently from the field and only one of the aforementioned guards is a solid perimeter shooter (Andre Harrison shoots 37.5% from beyond the arch).

Yet, despite the Wildcats inconsistencies from their guards, this team is still able to score 78.3 PPG (38th in NCAA).  This intriguing statistic is made possible thanks to the Wildcats tenacious freshman forward Julius Randle.  Although Randle’s size makes him ideal to be a reliable defensive rebounder (he garners 10.1 RPG), he is also a surprisingly agile scorer as he puts 16 PPG and shoots 53.8% from the field.  Although it’s not unusual for a collegiate forward to be such a prolific scorer and avid rebounder (see freshman Duke Blue Devil Jabari Parker), it is peculiar that Randle is able to handedly out shoot the rest of his team by a statistical land slide (the Wildcats starting guards average only 41.4% from the field).  This discrepancy is ultimately what does the Wildcats in, particularly against worthy adversaries who know what to look for (the Florida Gators were able to effectively stifle Randle to just 13 points and only allowed the Wildcats to score 59 points in their home loss).

However, it’s hard to bash the Wildcats so profusely over their on the court shortcomings when this team is still trying to find some sort of cohesion amongst their young roster.  Although the Duke Blue Devils have been able to excel with one of their youngest roster in recent memory, they are able to do it because they have poised guards who can shoot from the perimeter and dynamic forwards that can both shoot from the field while playing sound defense.  More than anything, the Wildcats appear to suffer from a lack of confidence especially when a game gets away from them down the stretch.  While their youth and unrestrained athleticism may give the Wildcats a decisive advantage in the first half of most games, their lack of mental resiliency and team unity is what makes their eventual defeats inevitable.  To not have at least one successful veteran to lead the charge puts a lot of pressure on a young squad that is still trying to muscle their way through each and every game rather than methodically and patiently deciphering each opponent’s weaknesses so they can exploit them when they go head to head.

In the end, the Wildcats are a team that has the potential to take down anyone they face but unfortunately lacks the mental fortitude and endurance to finish off games against superior opponents who understand what it takes to play a full 40 minutes of competitive basketball.  Although this program could flourish if the majority of these players would play more than two years of collegiate basketball, it’s hard to imagine Julius Randle or Willie Cauley-Stein forgoing the NBA to stay with a team who’s potential future of success is unknown.  While the Wildcats will most definitely make it to the NCAA tournament, it’s hard to fathom that this youthful squad of finicky athletes will be able endure the long road to the tournament’s eventual conclusion.

Tags: Kentucky Wildcats NCAA Basketball

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